In 2005, Denver voters agreed to pay $25 million each year for a program that would directly link what public school teachers earned to what the 73,000 students in the district learned. The Pro-Comp plan offered bonuses to teachers who raised student achievement on standardized tests, chose to work in the neediest schools, and received good evaluations.
Lori Nazareno was one of the teachers who jumped at the opportunity. She had been a teacher in Miami for 19 years. But in Florida, Nazareno had reached a ceiling on the district's pay scale, which like many school districts in the country is based solely on years of experience and professional degrees. The veteran teacher had been looking to be closer to family in Colorado, and a $3,000 bonus she stood to gain in Denver was the deal clincher.
A reauthorized version of the NCLB could pave the way for more districts to reward the best teachers with such bonuses, though any such effort faces staunch challenges from teacher unions. Miller, the House panel chairman, has led the push for districts to experiment with performance-pay plans as a way to recruit talented teachers to districts that serve low-income neighborhoods. His NCLB proposal would give as much as $12,500 a year to the most outstanding teachers.
But Reginald Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, which represents 3.2 million teachers, says the federal focus should instead be on raising teacher salaries and improving working conditions in challenging schools. Craig Richards, a professor of education in the Teachers College at Columbia University, agrees. "It's not that a performance-pay plan couldn't work," he says. "It's that no one has come up with a thoughtful way to do it."
In Florida, a legislative plan called Special Teachers Are Rewarded collapsed early this year after educators and their unions called the plan arbitrary, unfair, and divisive. The STAR program would have given bonuses only to the top 25 percent of teachers in the state, and it was based largely on student test scores. It disadvantaged librarians, art and music teachers, and others whose students were not tested.
Carla Sparks, a nationally certified teacher in Tampa who didn't get a $2,000 bonus under the state's latest merit pay program last year, says it's unfair to rate a teacher mostly on student test scores. "If you're evaluating teachers and students on one day of testing, you don't get a true picture," she says. "We have some veteran teachers with outstanding evaluations who have done some remarkable things for education who did not get a bonus, and they are feeling like a failure."